Lear is Here Introduction

Lear is Here is an adaption of King Lear acted and directed by Wu Hsing-kuo
Taipei, Taiwan 2001

In watching Lear is Here for the first time, there is a temptation for a person who is not familiar with Chinese theater to think of the production as typical or representative of Chinese theater in general or of Chinese adaptations of Shakespeare in particular.   While of course it is usually a mistake to generalize so broadly from any single play, it is a particularly misleading approach for Lear is Here, because this play mixes and reworks elements of several traditions — not only Beijing opera (jingjiu) in which Wu has been one of the most prominent performers over the last 25 years, but also the Chinese genre of spoken drama (huaju), a form that was heavily influenced by Western theatrical models, by modern dance which Wu studied for many years, and by elements of Western avant-garde theater as well.  In encountering Lear is Here, we will be exploring a work that is a radical transformation of “traditional” theater, not a stable example of one form.  This is increasingly the case for international Shakespeare productions: experiment, innovation, and the blending of forms from has become especially common in East Asia, and is a key to the ways in which the conversation between East and West has changed in the last decades.

Wu’s Life and Career

Wu Hsing-kuo was born in 1959 in Taiwan to a poor family, and raised by his widowed mother.  At twelve years of age he entered the rigorous training program in jingjiu of the Fuxing Drama School where he was trained for the wu sheng role, a strong male role that is often the lead in a Beijing opera.  The training involves acting, dancing, singing, acrobatics and is often rigorous with severe physical beatings — which had been banned on the mainland but continued in the Taiwan training schools —  a common part of the process as has been made well-known in the West by the film Farewell My Concubine (dir. Chen Kaige, 1993).  At twenty, his jingjiu training completed, Wu was awarded a scholarship to the Chinese Cultural University where he studied literature and other subjects, became interested in modern dance and in 1974 became part of the Cloud Gate dance company.  This was an immense change from the highly stylized and codified practices of jingjiu:  influenced by Martha Graham, the Cloud Gate company and its director Lin stressed the performer’s connection with the energy his or her own body and emotions, and a more natural, unpredictable and spontaneous mode of performance.  Wu returned to jingjiu professionally in 1977 and  became a disciple of the famous teacher and performer Zhou Zhengrong.  Wu was accorded a special status among Zhou’s proteges, almost amounting to an adoptive father-son relationship, but at the same time there were tensions from the start concerning Wu’s participation in modern dance, and his tendency to introduce non-traditional elements from modern dance and other forms into his jingjiu performance.  In his urge to reshape tradition, Wu was not alone — by the 1980s there was a significant movement within other performative arts — spoken drama (huaju) and dance to mix artforms, incorporate elements from the West.  Such a movement was a departure from Taiwan’s strong emphasis, since the Natonalist Party retreated to the island in 1950, on the traditional arts of China, in strong contrast, at times, to the artistic policies and practices of the mainland — but jingjiu in Taiwan was still a very traditional form when Wu became Zhou’s disciple, and Zhou himself was perhaps the most ardent traditionalist of all.  In the mid-1980s, Zhou and Wu had a major falling out that led to a permanent break in their relationship and also, in time, to the creation of Lear is Here, which is still Wu’s most artistically radical work.  The break came when, according to Li Ru Ru [Soul of Beijing Opera, 254] Zhou detected “some alien element” in one of Wu’s movements and began to beat  him with the stick that jingjiu master wielded.  As Wu tells the story in the program notes for Lear is Here:

When Master Zhou hit me for the third time, I grabbed the stick and said coldly” “Master, I’m thirty. Is it necessary to beat an apprentice while he is learning how to act.” My master was so angry that he trembled with rage. He dropped the stick despondently and left.  I knew our father and son relationship ended forever at that moment.  He never acknowledged me afterwards until the day he closed his eyes.  [program notes to 2001 production, as cited by Li].

Soon after this, Wu founded his own company, Contemporary Legend Theatre and began to stage plays that adapted Western classics (including Kingdom of Desire, a Macbeth adaptation, 1986; War and Eternity, a Hamlet  adaptation, 1990; The Tempest, 2004, as well as Euripides’ Medea, 1993 and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, 2005.   Though the Contemporary Legend Theatre is thus continuing its original agenda, it is important that Lear is Here was created during a two-year break in the company’s history (1999-2001),  That break was in large part due to financial problems — but those problems themselves were rooted in the changing status of jingjiu in Taiwan at a time when support for Taiwan’s declaring formal independence from China was growing and when, in the cultural sphere, there was a move away from the traditional arts that connected Taiwan to China’s past.  As a result,  after decades of generous government support, state funding was falling drastically.  (Li, 256).  Lear is Here marked Wu’s return to the theater after this long hiatus, and after much self-questioning and the work itself is as much an exploration of Wu’s own quest for artistic and personal identity in a rapidly changing society as it is an adaptation of King Lear.

Wu Hsing-kuo and Shakespeare

Wu Hsing-kuo’s Contemporary Legend Theatre has mounted four productions of Shakespeare’s plays:  the breakthrough Kingdom of Desire, an adaptation of Macbeth [1986], War and Eternity, a Hamlet adaptation [1990],  Lear is Here [2001] and The Tempest [2004].   All of these productions significantly modify Beijing opera practice, blending elements of Western theater and dance, and even film: Kingdom of Desire, for example, adapts several scenes not directly from Shakespeare, but from Throne of Blood [Castle of the Spider’s Web], a film adaptation of Macbeth by the Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, creator of such classic films as Rashomon [1950], Seven Samurai  [1954] and Ran, the epic adaptation of King Lear [1985].

But though all of Wu’s work modifies traditional forms, Lear is Here is the most radical, converting Shakespeare’s play, in which the stage is often dense with characters, into a one-man performance with–in comparison with the norm for Beijing opera — minimalist costumes and spectacle.  For Wu, the primary reason for doing Shakespeare has been, as he has said many times in interviews, to renew and transform Beijing opera, and give it new life in a changing world.  For Lear is Here, however, it can be argued, as by Alexander Huang, that creating an autobiographical work based on Shakespeare is an equally important motive.  Again, Wu’s own accounts of the history of the production are clear in pointing out how, after an absence from the theater of two years, Wu returned with a work that, while telling the story of King Lear, would also touch base with Wu’s complex struggle with the restrictions and limitations of Beijing opera and its rigorous, hierarchical and sometimes physically harsh traditions.  The struggle for a new form for a traditional art was, for Wu, also a struggle with such traditional expectations as that a performer would remain in the role type for which he was trained for life, with the practice of corporal punishment — even for mature artists in their thirties, and with his own teacher and mentor Zhou Zhengrong.